I claim no ownership rights to any of the works of Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, or anything in the GURPS Ogre, GURPS Reign of Steel, and GURPS Tales of the Solar Patrol settings published by Steve Jackson Games. Everything else is mine.
Usagi had gotten it half right. Ranma's life had given her plenty of nightmare fodder, but none of it involved light shows, however spectacular. For her, light shows linked to challenges and triumphs, not fear or pain. The closest she came were nightmares filled with overpowering heat and mocking laughter as fire danced all around him and ahead of him a tiny doll-Akane went up like a torch. As spectacularly devastating as the Jurai bombardment had been, it hadn't involved either flames or heat. Her night snuggled up against Akane was undisturbed.
Hotaru was another story.
Saturn stood beside the invaders' portal. She was alone, staring across what had been a park lawn in front of bordering apartment buildings but was now a long, shallow V-shaped trench leading to a pile of rubble.
Saturn heard the shout with crystal clarity, and turned to stare past the invaders' portal at the marching cohorts. Two of them, one coming straight toward the portal where she stood a solitary vigil, the other marching at an angle toward the irregular crystal pillar where her adopted parents stood guard.
She quickly took stock of herself — still a bit light-headed, the world wobbling ever so little, but it would have to do. She'd lost one family, she wouldn't lose another. Facing squarely toward the enemy threatening her parents, she held up the Silence Glaive vertically before her in a slightly shaky two-handed grip. Again, the large blade at the end was surrounded by a slowly expanding ball of coruscating purple energy as she held on ... and on ... she didn't want to obliterate the entire park and everyone in it ... just a little longer ... and she tried to slice the Silence Glaive downward, and couldn't move. Fear froze her, a premonition that something terrible was about to happen, something world-shattering.
She waited, and waited, and the cohorts marched closer and closer, both to her and her mothers. Neptune and Uranus backed a step before again holding their ground, their own fear clear in their stances, and at last she couldn't wait any longer. The Silence Glaive dropped.
The world went silent, surreal, and stayed that way, and even as the purple light of her power flashed forward the legionnaires vanished as if they had never been. In their place stood ranks of soldiers of the Japanese Defense Force in their mottled brown and green field uniforms, bayoneted rifles braced against their shoulders.
Saturn stood frozen in place, unable to even shout as her attack turned translucent, allowing her to watch through it as it silently plowed into the soldiers, bodies blowing apart as it swept its way through. Heads, limbs, torsos and smaller, less recognizable pieces of bodies exploded into the air in a rain of blood, thrown in all directions. The blast carried on to smash into an apartment building at the edge of the park, debris flung into the air to strike down more soldiers.
For a long moment nothing changed except the last of the debris raining on the park, until the last piece of brick and concrete thudded down. Then more people flashed into existence, women of all ages dressed in everything from kimonos to business suits to Western blouses and skirts to house dresses to jeans and T-shirts, boys and girls in school uniforms of all kinds or goth or punk styles or simple play clothes. Even as Saturn found she was again frozen in place, unable to so much as twitch an eyebrow, the women and children spread about the field she had just devastated. They knelt on the blood grass to gather up the scattered pieces of their fathers, brothers, sons, husbands, and brought them to offer to the frozen girl, silently begging her to fix what she had broken.
Then she heard the first sound since she had dropped her Silence Glaive: "Firefly?" Finding herself suddenly — finally — able to move, Saturn turned to find her Michiru-mama standing behind her. The Senshi of the Deeps was holding the burned and broken body of her Haruka-papa, the blonde woman's dead eyes staring blankly at the sky.
Hotaru's scream seemed to shake the walls of Usa's personal suite.
The next morning the rest of the Senshi, downtimers and uptimers both, were careful to ignore the state Hotaru and Usa were in. Not that they'd heard anything the night before, of course, the sound dampening in the walls of the suites was excellent, but from Usa's bleary face and Hotaru's reddened eyes it wasn't hard to realize what had happened. Still, the girls had done their best to act normally so the rest played along (though in Usagi's case only after an elbow in the side and repressing shake of the head from Ranma — the younger sister understood the need to put up a bold front).
Still, by an equally unspoken agreement everyone set aside any hint of business and settled for pure fun. This time it was Serenity that kicked off the prank war that raged throughout the day, sucking in the downtimers and uptimers alike with the palace servants gleefully supplying whatever was needed to all sides. And of course Ranma and Haruka went head-to-head on swoop bikes with some of the others joining in for fun (and to supply moving course obstacles). Ranma won the first few laps while the older girl adjusted, but Haruka finished the final lap first — in the end, experience and tricks of the trade the older woman was able to translate over from her wheels-on-the-ground motorcycle racing triumphed over sheer talent and aggressiveness. Still, Haruka quietly resolved to avoid a rematch until their next visit in order to maintain her bragging rights for at least a while, the speed with which Ranma had been picking up on the tricks she'd used had been positively scary. She also resolved to do her best to keep the redhead away from motorcycles — unlike swoop bikes, motorcycles didn't come with emergency auto-steering and repressor fields for when their riders got crazy.
But the next day, fun time was over and they started something the downtimers had rarely had in preparation for their previous fights — very thorough prep sessions covering their upcoming enemies.
Setsuna pressed the 'forward' button on the remote, and the holographic image in the front of the triangular table the downtimers were seated at (and Usa, but she'd been as much a part of the group as the rest for years) flickered before reforming into a new image of a tank-like treaded vehicle with a small turret, rolling down a city street. There were no visible weapons, instead it was covered by a forest of antennae.
"The SAU-03 Centurion," she said. "As an AU it is another autonomous unit, designed for mobile command-and-control of non-autonomous units. As such, it is a prime target — take it out, and the units it is controlling become inert at best, much more stupid at worst as they fall back on preprogrammed orders and much more basic threat analysis and response software."
A panel slid open on the Centurion's turret, and a thin red beam from the opening flashed past the camera viewpoint. Pluto hit the 'pause' button. "Usually, its sole weapon is an anti-personnel laser. However, its normal defense is that it is usually surrounded by other robots operating as bodyguards and servitors."
She hit the 'forward' button again, and the holograph flickered again, revealing a vaguely humanoid, man-sized dull-gray robot. "This might be one of the bodyguards, the XNU-05 Myrmidon. Developed by the Zoneminds to make use of human military ordnance and vehicles, it will usually be armed with —" She broke off, hitting the 'pause' button, when Minako raised her hand. Since the meeting began, Setsuna had been pleased to see the girl lose all of the ditzy behavior she'd been known for, focused intently on the parade of images and thumbnail sketches. True, it wasn't unheard of for her to become more her old self when things got serious, but that was usually during the missions themselves — perhaps she was finally shedding the mask she'd worn since London.
Minako observed, "This is the most human-like robot we've seen so far. Are there any that actually look human?"
Setsuna nodded. "Yes, there are, the Redjacks and Liliths. They look completely human, and the other Zoneminds are constantly upgrading them as guerillas, junkrats and nomads learn new ways of detecting them. But you won't find any in Zone Tokyo, because robots don't have ki. Ranma's family and the other high level martial artists can detect them — and the other anthropomorphic models such as the ones that mimic rats — every time just by looking at them, and the Tokyo Zonemind can't figure out how they do it. By this time, it's given up on anthropomorphic robots entirely as a waste of resources."
Minako grinned viciously. "Good to know," she said.
"Isn't it, though?" Setsuna agreed with a shark-grin of her own before turning back to the briefing. "Myrmidons are usually armed with whatever weapons were favored by the local military. In Zone Tokyo that was the Imperial Army, so ..."
Throughout the briefing, Setsuna had been keeping a close but covert eye on their Firefly. If it had been the day before she wouldn't have needed to be that covert, everyone else had been ... not watching the wounded girl, exactly, but aware whenever she was in the room. She'd also been the first pick whenever anyone had needed a partner in the day's fun (when they could pry her away from her parents and best friend), and she'd ended the day as thoroughly loved as she'd been exhausted. Apparently the attention had had its desired effect, and she'd looked much better the following morning and had thrown herself into the briefings as enthusiastically as she had the previous day's fun.
Of course, the nature of the briefing had made it more difficult for the others to pay much attention to Hotaru, seated along two of the three sides of the table and focused on Setsuna and the holograph display at the middle of the third side — Hotaru as much as any of them.
That had actually been what rang Setsuna's alarm bells, the youngest of the original Inner Senshi had always been a gentle soul, in her previous life as much as the present one. Under Serenity she had been happy to live her life as a reclusive (if renowned) scholar of history, leaving dealing with the most serious day-to-day threats to her fellow Outers and remaining an unspoken threat during negotiations with the more ... lively ... of the interstellar neighbors of the Moon Queendom and its allies. She had usually only joined her fellow Senshi for the occasional training session and at the most important of social events — such as the birthday party of the Queen's younger daughter. Even in her current life, she normally left the analysis and planning to the others, simply going along with whatever her role was in the plans they came up with. Yes, Setsuna definitely needed to have a talk with her young friend — but privately, and unnoticed by the rest. Not easy, but Setsuna was nothing if not patient.
Her opportunity came with their fourth break of the day, when Hotaru finally used the meeting room's attached washroom alone. Even as the door swooshed shut behind the girl, Setsuna stepped to her Time Gates, and took the time to check Hotaru's likely fate in the coming fight. What she found didn't surprise her.
With that done, she stepped into the washroom, into the same split-second that she'd stepped out of the meeting room. "Hey, Hotaru," she said softly, and hid a grin when the raven-haired girl shrieked as she practically hit the ceiling. Setsuna missed the little pranks she had used to pull on her princess.
"Setsuna-mama, that wasn't funny!" Hotaru insisted when she caught her breath, trying for a menacing frown and only managing 'cute'.
Setsuna giggled. "I don't know, from my side it was hilarious," she disagreed, then sobered. "Firefly, we need to talk. Take care of your business and wash up, then we're going to the Time Gates."
Hotaru nodded and followed orders (blushing furiously even though Setsuna turned her back while she used the toilet), then followed her mother-in-spirit through a portal to the Time Gates' dreary landscape. Once there, she asked, "So what do we need to talk about?"
Setsuna eyed her sort-of-daughter's defensive posture — arms crossed, shoulders slightly hunched — and suppressed a sigh as she searched for words. Finally, she said, "Firefly, you're taking this very seriously."
"It isn't serious business?" Hotaru demanded.
"Well, yes, but it always is ... and you usually don't." Setsuna gazed at the tight, closed expression on the face of the normally expressive if shy girl and did sigh, then stepped forward and pulled her into a hug. "I'm not going to pretend that I know exactly what you've been going through since the last battle," she said softly — and it was true enough, she didn't know exactly what Hotaru was going through, even if her five millennia of experience gave her a strong and fairly accurate general opinion. "I know you are eager to save the lives of these counterparts of your mothers, and others, who lost their own Firefly. We all agree with you, we're eager to help. Just remember you have people who love you, and would miss you if you died. Don't take any unnecessary chances. Okay? Can you promise me that?"
Hotaru had stiffened when hugged, but as her Setsuna-mama spoke she relaxed until she finally, hesitantly returned the hug. "Y-Y-Yes, I c-c-c-can," she stuttered, sniffled, and took a deep uneven breath. "Yes, I can," she said again more firmly.
Setsuna tightened her hug, Hotaru did the same, and the two stood silently for long minutes before Setsuna reluctantly broke the embrace. She placed her hands on Hotaru's shoulder and held her at arm's length, smiling sadly at the girl's wet face. "You must understand that while we are happy to do this, this is the only time we can. It will be dangerous, and there's an essentially infinite number of other timelines — we can't come close to fixign them all, we'd inevitably die trying, and our own home needs our help." She waited until the girl reluctantly nodded, then pulled her into another brief hug and released her. "Now you need to get back and wash your face before rejoining your adoring public. I'll be waiting for you."
Hotaru nodded again, wiped at her cheeks and smiled tremulously, before turning to walk through the still-open portal back into the washroom.
Setsuna closed the portal behind her, then pulled out a handkerchief to wipe at her own damp cheeks before turning to the Gates. She again checked out the likely possibilities of the coming future, and smiled. Better, she thought when she found a greatly lowered possibility of Saturn killing herself by throwing herself into the fight with too much enthusiasm, and that others were less likely to die trying to save her. The smiling Senshi of Time shut down the Time Gates and stepped back to the spot she had left only minutes before in the meeting room.